Public safety committee meeting avoids discussion of public safety | Bleader

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Public safety committee meeting avoids discussion of public safety

Posted By on 09.06.12 at 03:43 PM

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James Balcer: intent on kicking the asses of phony veterans
  • James Balcer: intent on kicking the asses of phony veterans

A few minutes before the City Council's public safety committee met Thursday, James Balcer was explaining why aldermen needed to do something about people who falsely claim to be military heroes.

Balcer, who chairs the committee, recalled the time he came across a guy in the street asking for money to get a bus ticket to Milwaukee. "He claimed he was a former navy SEAL," Balcer said. "I looked at him and said, 'Nyooo.'"

The alderman took prompt action. "I said, 'You're a fucking liar, big guy.'"

To Balcer, a proud Vietnam vet, lying about military medals is nothing short of a crime. "We've got to hold these phonies accountable," he said.

He isn't the only one who's supported a crackdown. A few years ago the City Council made it illegal to make deliberate misrepresentations about earning military badges, decorations, medals, ribbons, buttons, or rosettes.

It's not clear how many liars were rounded up as a result. But in June the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar federal law, ruling that it violated free speech rights. Chicago's ordinance had to be revised.

And so the public safety committee had one item on its agenda Thursday: consideration of a new regulation that makes it a crime to lie about military honors if doing so leads to a "material benefit."

At 10 AM, the scheduled meeting time, Balcer was the lone alderman in the room. He figured that some committee members would have a hard time making it, since they were in Charlotte for the Democratic convention, but he remained optimistic. "I expect a few of my colleagues to show up."

Soon he was joined by aldermen Debra Silverstein, Willie Cochran, and Nicholas Sposato—not technically enough for a quorum, but getting closer.

Balcer thought others might be milling in the hallway. "Did you see Alderman Reboyras out there?" he asked an aide. "Can someone ask him to come in?"

Eventually the meeting got under way with a city attorney reviewing the new ordinance. Balcer retold the anecdote of the navy SEAL who wasn't a navy SEAL, except this time he left out the f-bombs.

But the recently corralled Alderman Reboyras had a concern. "I know someone—and you know him too—who sometimes wears his nephew's coat of arms from the marines. Would he be affected by this? Because that person is me."

For a moment Balcer appeared taken aback. "No!" he declared. "No, no—that's OK."

The city attorney confirmed that Reboyras would not be in violation of the law since he wasn't gaining materially from the gesture. Still, the revelation prompted a round of truth-telling. Sposato, a former firefighter, admitted that he sometimes wears a borrowed military pin in tribute to those who serve. And Balcer had his own confession to make.

"For the record, my son sometimes wears one of my veteran's hats," he said.

Cochran, a former police officer, played bad cop. "I was just up in Alderman Reboyras's ward, and people told me they voted for him because of that military pin, so I think he's benefiting. I think we need to look into this."

He started laughing, and everybody else laughed with him. Then he asked to be listed as a cosponsor of the ordinance.

It passed unanimously. Its business done for the day, the committee adjourned.

Left unmentioned was Chicago's ongoing epidemic of violence—including the high-profile murder Tuesday of teenage rapper Lil JoJo and a shooting Wednesday on the Dan Ryan expressway. But that's not a new story—the public safety committee doesn't hold many meetings to discuss public safety.

Afterward Cochran told me that the committee is "looking at" the city's epidemic of violence and is in regular communication with police superintendent Garry McCarthy. "We've agreed to give him an opportunity to see if his tactics and plans will work."

Cochran promised that aldermen will be demanding "assessments and evaluations" sometime this fall. "I think you'll see that coming soon," he said.

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